We've heard it before, but now it's being said by the Office of the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency: the EPA was directed by the White House to mislead the public regarding the safety of the air in Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
EPA issued five press releases within 10 days after September 11, 2001, four more through the end of December, and another four through the end of May 2002. EPA's WTC press releases from September through December 2001 reassured the public about air quality. Although EPA's press releases generally recommended that rescue and cleanup workers take precautions to reduce their exposure to pollutants, EPA's basic overriding message was that the public did not need to be concerned about airborne contaminants caused by the WTC collapse. This reassurance appeared to apply to both indoor and outdoor air.
For example, EPA Region 2 officials told us that the September 18 statement made by the EPA Administrator (see Appendix C) that the air was "safe" to breathe only applied to:
long-term health effects - not short-term or acute health effects;
the general public - not Ground Zero workers;
outdoor air - not indoor air;
healthy adults - not sensitive sub-populations such as children and the
asbestos - not other air pollutants.
However, except for the second point, the statements issued by EPA in press releases throughout 2001 generally did not contain the above qualifications. For the general public, EPA's overriding message was that there was no significant threat to human health.
If the all-clear applied only to long-term asbestos danger to healthy adults among the general public, what else was there to be concerned about? According to the Inspector General's report,
One person described the aftermath in Lower Manhattan as "looking like a blizzard" had hit. However, this blizzard did not deposit snow, but instead a complex mixture of building debris and combustion by-products. This mixture included, among other substances, asbestos, lead, glass fibers, and concrete dust.
In addition to the initial dispersion of dust and debris, fires at the site created various emissions of potentially harmful pollutants. These fires were not officially declared extinguished until December 19, 2001, and debris continued to smolder and fires flared up for weeks after that. Emissions resulting from these fires included particulate matter, various metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxin.
Protecting the public from air pollution is the EPA's proper concern. Why would they issue press releases minimizing known dangers and overstating the positives?
According to the report, "The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)...convinced EPA to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones."
Few written records were available on the process used to prepare WTC press releases. We found draft versions for two of the press releases. However, the White House's role in EPA's public communications about WTC environmental conditions was described in a September 12, 2001, e-mail from the EPA Deputy Administrator's Chief of Staff to senior EPA officials:
All statements to the media should be cleared through the NSC [National Security Council] before they are released.
According to the EPA Chief of Staff, one particular CEQ official was designated to work with EPA to ensure that clearance was obtained through NSC. The Associate Administrator for the EPA Office of Communications, Education, and Media Relations (OCEMR)3 said that no press release could be issued for a 3- to 4-week period after September 11 without approval from the CEQ contact.
Although EPA's position has been that WTC area residents should obtain "professional cleaning," EPA's press releases did not instruct residents to do so. Instead they instructed residents to follow recommended and proper cleaning procedures and referred the public to the New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH) for recommended cleaning procedures.
We asked the OCEMR Associate Administrator whether her office had considered advising the public through a press release that they needed to obtain professional cleaning for their indoor spaces. The Associate Administrator stated: "It was in a press release: it was removed by. . . [the CEQ contact]."
But what reason could the White House have for pressuring the EPA to put a positive spin on its reports? The report says the EPA Chief of Staff cited "the desire to reopen Wall Street and"--what else?--"national security concerns."
The desire to reopen Wall Street is understandable, but was it worth lying to those who work there and those who live nearby about what kinds of pollution were in the air? As written, the EPA press releases would not likely have prevented the reopening of the stock market. However, they might have led people to be more careful, to have inside spaces professionally cleaned--and maybe to live longer, healthier lives.
As for the other stated reason, we've heard that song before. National security is the reason Bush won't release records of the Reagan administration that might embarrass his father. National security is the reason we can't be shown the evidence that the 9/11 hijackers were funded by Saudis who happen to be Bush business partners. But what national security purpose was served by misrepresenting the facts and encouraging thousands of New Yorkers to expose themselves to potentially hazardous conditions?
Moreover, White House interference did not stop with manipulating the EPA press releases. The CEQ also was less than cooperative with the Office of the Inspector General in its investigation.
Our review of the process and the support for information in EPA press releases on air quality was limited since CEQ officials declined to meet with us to discuss their role in the preparation of press releases. Our written request for an interview was declined by a White House legal counselor, who noted there were "institutional concerns about interviewing White House employees."
No surprise there; the obvious "national security" purpose served by their silence is the same one served by those other decisions: sparing the administration and its friends some embarrassment.
The whole sordid affair is just one more example of the Bush League's leadership by deception, really, and hopefully less deadly than some of their other whoppers; but somehow seeing them spin public safety information, particularly if it kept some of the victims of 9/11 from making informed decisions about their own health, is even more disgusting.